March 27, 2009

How Architectural Interns Can Survive the Recession

by Mark Schwamel, Assoc. AIA

Summary: In this industry, it is sometimes difficult to have a true sense of the direction firms are taking in these tough economic times. What we all do know is that it is going to take some time before this economy recovers. We all know a friend, colleague, or family member who has become victim to this economic downturn because of forces beyond their control. Often of late, you hear: “I don’t know what I would do if I were let go.”

Even if a recruiter offers you a job, it may not be the right fit, but every option in this economy has to be considered. The real difference, or fear, during this big ‘R’ versus the past is that architects and interns will begin looking outside the profession, and a generation of architects could be lost.

So, if you are one of the fortunate ones with a steady job, that is great! But now may be the time to take action. This articles aims to provide a survival guide of sorts—with tips on how young professionals in architecture can make themselves recession resistant—from professional development strategies to money saving tips and resources.

Based on some research, here is a simple list—tailored to our profession—on how to stay recession resistant.

Professional development strategies

ONE: Update It—Your Résumé and Portfolio
Maintaining an updated résumé and portfolio is standard advice, important for times in recession or not. If you lose your job, you must be ready for whatever opportunity exists. As Johnny Carson once noted: “Talent alone won't make you a success. Neither will being in the right place at the right time—unless you are ready." The most important question is: Are you ready?

  • Take a look at sample résumés online or in your office.
  • Research effective cover letters—keep yours short and sweet.
  • Take the time to develop a clean and graphically strong résumé to differentiate yourself from the standard Word resume formats.
  • Make sure your portfolio is organized and formatted consistently.
  • Include as many professional work samples as possible; you aren’t in college any more.

TWO: Learn New Skills—An Investment in You
Now, more than ever, is the time to expand upon your skill set. Make yourself more marketable and valuable to the profession and your current or future employer. A few ideas include the following.

  • Download free software or trial versions of graphic programs (e.g., Google Sketch-Up and Revit).
  • Take a sketching class or, better yet, practice your sketch skills on nice days outdoors.
  • Go back to school to earn your master’s degree—in architecture or business.
  • Build your credentials (e.g., become a LEED AP).
  • If you haven’t yet, complete your IDP or start cataloging it immediately. Don’t forget, even if you are not employed, you can still earn IDP units under the “Alternative Work Setting.” Check out NCARB’s IDP guidelines for more information.
  • Start/Finish your Architectural Registration Exams.
  • Continue to build on your education: read architectural publications relevant to your position.

THREE: Network, Network, Network!
The worst thing you could do is isolate yourself professionally—now is the time to network.

  • Discuss job and project prospects regularly with your colleagues.
  • Designers and specifiers: make regular showroom visits to stay current or invite in product representatives for lunch-and-learns in the office.
  • Know your resources: be sure to have a comprehensive understanding of standing relationships with consultants, vendors, etc.
  • Look beyond the office to network: planning departments in municipalities/government, façade manufacturers/engineers, interior design offices, mechanical engineering, drafting, etc.
  • Reconnect or check in with your mentor. He or she might have contacts or advice that can help you through this tough time, including obtaining new employment.
  • Keep your AIA membership current for networking events. If you are having trouble making your dues, give your local chapter a call to see if they have can grant a hardship dues reduction or waiver.
  • Look into scholarship opportunities for which you may qualify.

A great way to network is to volunteer—it can give you a needed distraction from stress and make you feel good by helping others. You might sign up to build a house with Habitat for Humanity or give career advice to high school students about a future in architecture. And, who knows, you may just be working alongside another volunteer who may be your future employer.

A great combined application of networking and skill and résumé building is entering into a design competition. Often this is a team experience and shows employers you are devoted to design and the profession—maybe even benefiting a nonprofit or your firm by putting together a winning proposal.

Money-saving tips and resources

FOUR: Investigate Your Health Insurance Policy
Being clear on your health plan coverage is of critical importance, as benefits are often terminated within 30 days of a potential layoff. Whether or not you have been laid off, be sure to do these three things.

  • Research your health insurance options with a spouse or partner in anticipation of being laid off. You might want to figure out exactly how much your health insurance will cost if you do lose your job to build up your emergency fund accordingly.
  • Figure out how much it would cost to extend your employer’s group insurance coverage through the federal COBRA program (if indeed you are laid off). Be aware that you would have to pay both the employer and employee shares of the premiums, which may be higher than you expected, but at least you’d get to keep the same coverage.
  • Research the potential to add yourself to a significant other's policy, as it is usually less expensive than paying for your own coverage.

FIVE: Student Loan Deferment
According to, another way to stay liquid, if indeed you face unemployment, is to suspend payments on your student loans temporarily while you are unemployed. “Unemployment” is triggered by working less than 30 hours per week. To begin an unemployment deferment, you must submit a request through your lender. For more information regarding qualifying for, length of and applying for deferment, visit the Web.

SIX: Financial Ideas/Resources
Job loss will be much easier to deal with financially and emotionally if you've prepared for the worst by following the advice above. If the worst does happen, here are additional tips for getting through a period of job loss.

  • If you are issued severance from your former employer, use it to get you through your period of unemployment. Spend it carefully and pay the most important things first: rent, utilities, groceries, car payment.
  • Check with your state to see if you can apply for unemployment insurance.
  • Do not use your credit cards unless it is for emergency expenses only.
  • Contact your creditors (credit card companies, etc.) and request an arrangement, due to your unemployment, that allows you to make token or reduced payments for a limited time.

So, if projects in your office have slowed or if you've been laid off, continue to work toward your goals and develop and review your personal and professional marketing objectives. These tips will position you to stay in top shape, professionally and financially, so you can be ready for the many new opportunities that may be coming your way.
If you have additional advice or any thoughts regarding this article, post them to the National Associates Committee blog.

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Mark works for Gensler Chicago as a Designer in Retail, Entertainment and Urban Design Studio. He joined AIA in 2003, and in the past has worked as the AIAS School President and as the AIAS Graduate Representative. Mark attended Cleveland State University where he graduated in1998 with a Bachelor of Architecture. He then went on to receive a Masters of Architecture in Urban Design from Kent State University in 2003.